On December 17th, the New York Times published an article regarding China’s ongoing international mission to survey and examine Chinese antiquities taken from Beijing’s Old Summer Palace (or Yuanmingyuan 圓明園) that are currently housed in museums and private collections in Britain, the United States, and France.
Since the publication of this article, there has been a slew of reaction from all corners of the blogosphere, mostly expressing outrage against the inflammatory and one-sided arguments of the article’s author, Andrew Jacobs. For instance, cultural heritage blogger Lee Rosenbaum conveys shock at Jacobs’ dismissive tone against the Chinese and their legitimate endeavor, and that such a disparaging article could be “presented on Page One as a news report rather than a commentary.” Another piece by SAFE, delved into the suspect relationship between Jacobs and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, suggesting that biased reporting on the part of the New York Times was due to their intimacy with the museum.
In lieu of this current controversy, I feel that it is worthwhile to bring to the forefront of the discussion the facts of China’s recent efforts.
First of all, it should be acknowledged that the sacking of Yuanmingyuan is a point of considerable humiliation to many Chinese, and as such, a great deal of national pride is involved in reclaiming artifacts like the bronze zodiac heads. That being said however, expressing consternation about the artifacts that were taken during the sacking of Yuanmingyuan is completely within China’s right, as Italy and Greece have previously demonstrated. Thus, China’s interest in reclaiming these artifacts should not be disparaged as merely a publicity stunt. That the Chinese see these objects as a part of China’s rightful patrimony is not something the international community should vilify.
Secondly, the problem with the Yuanmingyuan bronzes, however, is that they were removed before any of the current laws protecting archaeological patrimony were enacted, making its situation different from that of, say, the Euphronios krater, which was shown to have been taken out of Italy in the mid-1900s, and more like that of the Elgin Marbles. As such, China does not have a legal right to demand these items back. Thus, their only recourse so far has been to purchase these antiquities back whenever they surface on the antiquities market, which is exactly what they have been doing. Take for example, the purchase of the bronze horse head in 2007 from Sotheby’s by Hong Kong billionaire Stanley Ho for a total of $8.9 million; and more recently, the Christie’s Paris auction of the rat and rabbit heads that were a previously in the possession of designer Yves Saint Laurent. Considering how sensitive a topic the sacking of Yuanmingyuan is to many Chinese, it seems only natural that being forced to purchase them back at exorbitant amounts of money chafes at Chinese national pride.
Chinese nationalism, however, is not the central issue. Instead what we should focus on is that these high-profile, “hot” items are being auctioned on the antiquities market despite the fact that it is well-known where they came from and under what circumstances. Furthermore, although they remain out of the reach of some of the major pieces of international cultural heritage legislation (for instance China’s current MOU, which stipulates that items must be older than 250 years of age to qualify for repatriation), it is still not taboo to sell them. Consider this, what would have happened if a piece of the Parthenon were to suddenly surface on the market? How often does that happen anymore? The infamy surrounding the Yuanmingyuan bronze heads over the last several years should be enough to deter western markets from touching them, and yet, there is very little negative sentiment directed towards the selling of such obviously looted Chinese antiquities on the international art market. If a similar situation were to have occurred involving Roman, Greek, or Mayan antiquities, there is no doubt that the media would have reacted much differently; no one would be impugning Italian, Greek, or Central American national pride.
What these events have shown, when we cut away all of the political posturing, is that there is a serious imbalance between the protection of cultural heritage from different source countries. On one hand, Italy, Greece, and several nations in Central America have caused enough political and legal upheaval against market nations like the US that it is now extremely taboo to sell high-profile antiquities from those countries. No such taboo yet exists for antiquities from China, India, and many Southeast Asian nations. This is what needs to change, and this is what people should be aware of.